Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

In a rootless world, it's important to feel like we belong

It's grand to see Dublin Airport now plastered with huge posters for The Gathering event of 2013. Unlike Gabriel Byrne, I do not consider this initiative - to bring the Irish diaspora back home for a meaningful visit - just a racket for tourism revenue.

Do we forget that generation upon generation of Irish people who emigrated for economic reasons sent remittances back to Ireland to support their families?

Maybe, instead of erecting a statue of Che Guevara in Galway, the aldermen and women of that city should consider commissioning a statue to the emigrant diaspora who did so much for Connaught.

Sensitively handled, The Gathering is a way of saying the motherland cares. That famous emigrant James Joyce damned Ireland as "an old sow who eats her farrow", but through his unsettled residencies in Trieste, Paris and Zurich, he lived every day of his life in Dublin in his head.

There's another subtext, as well, to the theme of The Gathering: the importance of a sense of patriotism, of an attachment to an ancestral place in a globalised, and sometimes rootless, world.

As some traditional mortal sins have been abolished, some new ones have arisen to take their place, and the chief of all contemporary mortal sins is racism.

Disliking people because of the colour of their skin is mean-spirited and stupid. But that's not the same as the politically correct doctrine of anti-racism, which refuses to acknowledge that cultures can be very different and that it is neither unnatural, nor nasty to feel more comfortable within your own culture.

Feelings about identity matter. The Belfast rioters who have cost their city millions in damage to business over the petty matter of a flag are damn fools.

Any sensible person would surely put their own economic interest above the entirely symbolic fluttering of a flag. But how deep, and how needy, is the human desire for attachment to a particular identity that people would prefer to see their native city damaged by violence than sacrifice that attachment and that identity?

Sophisticated folks, such as international bureaucrats, whose tribe and clan identity have been transferred to a deracinated institution, may not always understand this, but a failure to grasp this need can be a costly error.

Thus it was that all the sophisticated folk and the intellectuals did not see the likes of al-Qaida coming. They believed that, once Algeria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq were 'modernised', they would become like Finland. Although, beneath the carapace of Scandinavian sangfroid, the Finns, too, are strongly rooted in their sense of primacy about Finnish identity.

When I was visiting Sibelius's house outside Helsinki a couple of years ago, our very correct Finnish guide said: "There has, unfortunately, been an increase in crime in recent years in Finland. Although not necessarily committed by Finns." As if those who came from outside the tribe mightn't have quite the same feelings for the tribe's values.

I'm not saying that The Gathering should be some kind of retro journey back to Irish clannishness. Too much clannishness is a form of primitivism.

But it is warming to the heart to cherish that sense of connection with a long, historic homeland, a place where the graves of your ancestors lie.

The Gathering idea goes well beyond a few merry sessions of fiddle playing and a bit of aul' craic; it is saying to anyone who feels anything - yearning, nostalgia, ardour, even, like Joyce, rancour - about their Irish identity throughout the world that you can belong. And everyone wants to belong.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz